Mindful Leadership In a World of Distractions

Co-authored with Dr. Chris Reina

In today's constantly connected and always "on" business environment, it is more difficult than ever for leaders to engage in the deep thought, strategic thinking, and creativity needed to solve today's complex problems or develop and communicate a vision that keeps the organization ahead of the competition. Technology has transformed the much boasted-about "open door policy" into a "virtual" door that never closes, often leaving leaders overwhelmed and in a state of constant distraction. Recent research from the Center for Creative Leadership reports that 52% of senior managers are interrupted every 30 minutes. Not surprisingly, leaders find it difficult or impossible to remain truly present and attentive for more than a few moments to focus on important leadership tasks.

Mindfulness improves leadership and productivity.

To address these issues, business leaders are increasingly embracing mindfulness strategies. Mindful leadership is not an additional task heaped on a leader's already full plate; it is a mindset and intentionality that leaders integrate into all areas of their lives. According to a 2014 report from the UNC Kenan-Flagler business school, mindfulness in the workplace boosts creativity, listening skills, emotional intelligence, decision making, productivity, performance, job satisfaction/ engagement, and reduces stress.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in mindfulness and stress reduction research and teaching, explains that mindfulness means "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." At its core, mindfulness has two aspects: 1) an intentional focus on the present moment; and 2) an awareness of and ability to set aside underlying biases and judgment filters that limit thinking.

We experience mindfulness when we watch the last few minutes of a good football game or dance at a concert. During these experiences, our mind is not "time traveling" to the future list of "to dos" or ruminating about the past. Instead, we are experiencing the present moment more fully than we do in our daily lives of distraction and autopilot.

Practice presence and focus.

Mindful leadership is cultivated by developing the discipline to set aside technology, mental checklists, and worries about the future, and remain present and open in multiples ways. For example, in meetings mindful leaders remain present, look the speaker in the eyes, use active listening skills to truly hear what others are saying, and notice nonverbal communication that helps them gauge the real thoughts and feelings of others. Additionally, rather than assuming that employees who don't speak up have nothing to say, mindful leaders notice their silence and find ways to engage all of the voices at the table. Mindful leaders also practice staying present and notice when their mind has strayed from the meeting they are attending. When this happens, they do not judge themselves. Instead, they notice it and then return their full attention to what is happening in the moment.

Focusing and remaining present also helps address anxiety about the past or worry about the future. For example, if you are worried about whether you will be replaced or about the future of the company, remind yourself that at this moment you are currently employed and the company is still running. Focusing on what is true in the present moment helps de-escalate the cycle of catastrophic thinking that hijacks the brain and can result in paralysis.

Mindful leaders also cultivate their ability to focus by intentionally closing the door to interruptions and turning off electronic devices for blocks of time. Making space for focus allows leaders to devote attention to a project without distraction so they can be more productive and efficient. Ditching distractions and setting aside worries about the past or future allows leaders to channel energy and capacity to engage in deep thought, and be creative and innovative.

Recognize and set aside biases and prejudice.

Setting aside biases and prejudice also requires commitment and intention. Biases and prejudice filter and limit what leaders hear and see from others and limit problem solving. While prior knowledge and experiences are helpful shortcuts to help make quick decisions such as what to order for lunch, using this approach in business can prevent leaders from considering valuable information that could lead to better results. For example, rather than evaluating new approaches, leaders often choose to do what is familiar and what worked well enough in the past, or they stop evaluating multiple options when they find the first reasonable one. Akin to the mindless "if it's not broken, don't fix it" approach, this type of decision-making hinders innovation and cutting-edge solutions that may lead to a competitive advantage for the organization.

Cultivate open-mindedness.

Mindful leaders do not "write off" or ignore those who are different from them or fixate on their own ideas. Instead they become curious and embrace the opportunity to learn from others. Mindful leaders do this by developing self-awareness of their biases and prejudices, developing strategies to notice and set aside these filters, and opening themselves up to consider and evaluate all options, including new and different perspectives that the leader never thought about or considered in the past. Mindfulness allows leaders to move from black and white thinking, (i.e., cost versus quality) to consideration of an array of options that balance competing demands. A mindful leader also strives to be open-minded when evaluating ideas from employees even if they have not successfully generated "winning solutions" in the past.

Technology makes it easy to succumb to a life of distraction and autopilot, which is mindless living. Leaders can reclaim the focus, energy, and creativity necessary to succeed in today's competitive business environments through cultivating intentional presence and non-judgment. Leaders who commit to these strategies and integrate them into daily tasks find that they are more effective and efficient, more creative and thoughtful, and feel less scattered and stressed. While being mindful takes effort and commitment, the clarity, awareness, and attention it fosters is invaluable for leadership and can begin with the next task.

Christopher Reina is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research focuses on the intersection of leadership, mindfulness, and emotions in the workplace and how they aid employees and organizations in successfully adapting to change in order to facilitate employee engagement and organization performance and well-being. Christopher is especially interested in understanding the impact of leadership on followers and how this translates to customer/patient outcomes. Christopher received his Ph.D. in Business Administration (Management) from the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and has corporate experience in leadership training and development as well as sales and marketing in the healthcare industry. Christopher is also the Co-Founder of HEROES For Students, a non-profit organization based in Phoenix, AZ that provides workforce development training for K-12 students by leveraging the careers and experiences of community guest speakers. He consults and teaches seminars on mindful leadership, negotiation strategies, and managing the emotional space within organizations.